Go with the Flo
Discovering the secrets of Malacca with Malaysia’s culinary queen
WALKING around Malacca with Florence Tan is like visiting the Country Women’s Association with Margaret Fulton. Everywhere we go, people stop and stare, the brave hurrying over to embrace the impeccably turnedout sexagenarian, others calling out a shy ‘‘Hello, Florence’’ as they wave and giggle from a distance.
There is nothing of the diva about the perpetually smiling Tan. For years she has been one of Malaysia’s highest-profile chefs and more recently an unofficial weapon in this Southeast Asian nation’s efforts to draw the world’s attention to its cuisine, which has lagged in popularity behind the food of, say, Thailand or Vietnam.
Tan, who grew up in the historic port city on the Strait of Malacca but now lives in Kuala Lumpur, a two-hour drive north, is one of Malacca’s greatest cheerleaders, having progressed from home economist and teacher here to five- star hotel chef, cookbook author and television identity.
Her well-received book, Recipes from the Nyonya Kitchen (also released as Secrets of the Nyonya Kitchen), showcases the cuisine of the Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan, community — Straits Chinese descended from early Chinese settlers who visited Malacca, then the centre of spice trade in the region, and married Malays. The resulting cuisine is a heady fusion of Chinese and Malay techniques and spices, and Tan — herself a Straits Chinese, born into a family of excellent cooks — is my key to discovering the best in the city.
Diminutive Malacca — known as Melaka in Malay — is an easy city to negotiate. Heritage listed by UNESCO in 2008, the city (with an area of 1656sq km and a population of 788,700) is divided into old and new towns, with the Malacca River flowing through its heart. The historic centre, Banda Hilir, is located near the coastline at the mouth of the river and includes some of the city’s most important sites, such as the ruins of the Portuguese fortress A’famosa and St Paul’s Church on the eastern side of the river, and the old Chinatown area on the western bank. It is also where most of the best eating experiences can be had.
The picturesque city tells the tale of its Portuguese, Dutch and British conquerors, with a rich tapestry of some of Asia’s oldest European architecture alongside traditional Malay houses and shops. A cruise up the Malacca River provides a bird’s-eye view.
We set off early in Tan’s comfy sedan. At the wheel is Ismail, once her aunt’s chauffeur but ‘‘adopted’’ by Tan after the elderly woman passed away.
‘‘Do you know, he has 10 children to support,’’ Tan whispers as we hurtle past taxis and trishaws decked out with impossibly bright blooms, blaring boom boxes announcing their presence.
Family is important to Tan. At Malacca Central Market — a scrupulously clean, indoor repository of produce, from turnips and tripe to dried tamarind skins — we are joined by her cousin Amy Koh, another familiar face due to the high-spirited duo’s appearance on Rick Stein’s television series Far Eastern Odyssey, in which they whipped up a spicy chicken dish at Koh’s popular restaurant in the centre of town. The pair has also appeared on the Australian series Poh’s Kitchen.
A dental nurse for 33 years before she became a chef four years ago, Koh has regularly accompanied Tan on overseas missions to promote Malaysian cuisine. ‘‘We grew up together and we share everything,’’ says Tan. ‘‘Except husbands!’’ she adds with a hoot. But Koh is in no mood to joke. The price of fresh chillies has trebled in j ust a few days. ‘ ‘ It’s never gone up this much before,’’ she says with a scowl, flinging a handful of the potent missiles back on to the pile.
If anybody should understand the vagaries of Malacca’s produce pricing, it’s Koh — she shops at this wet market, about 3km from the centre of town and in the same building as the city’s express bus and taxi terminal, for her restaurant almost every day.
The market is only our first stop and Tan has already coerced me into trying a banana fritter and a curry puff (costing the equivalent of a few cents each) from a portly woman at the market’s entrance. Now Koh leads us upstairs to the food court, which largely serves market vendors and locals, and I feel I’ve been let in on a secret. ‘‘Eating is a national pastime,’’ Tan tells me, guiding me to a table where a selection of dishes is laid out, including nasi ayam (Malay chicken rice), curry mee (a spicy curry soup with egg noodles, beef, egg, fishcakes and vegetables) and soto ayam ( a soothing chicken broth), each costing as little as 4 ringgit ($1.20).
There’s also a steaming mug of teh tarik, the sweet pulled tea pre- pared with condensed milk — the making of which, Tan tells me, is also something of a national sport, with an annual competition to find the best tea puller.
‘ ‘ I always say to people that Malaysian food has so much variety, you can go around the world seven times,’’ Tan says of the ethnic influences, including Chinese, Portuguese and Chitti ( South Indian), that have informed the city’s cuisine.
‘ ‘ It was 600 years ago that traders first came [ here]. The Dutch didn’t leave much except the buildings, but the British, the Portuguese, the Chinese, they left us a lot of influences on our food and we have assimilated all the best parts from each culture.’’
Jonker Street in city- centre Chinatown is the perfect place to experience this diversity. Its stallholders on weekends spruik gadgets, snacks and souvenirs, alongside restaurants, bars and shophouses selling everything from baked pineapple tarts to batteries. Jonker Street (Jalan Hang Jebat) is also renowned for its antiques stores, full of ceramics, artworks, wooden games and ornaments. For the famous Malaccan sweet baba cendol — a glorious confection of shaved ice, coconut milk, sweet red beans and jelly strips made from green pea flour topped with palm sugar — Tan guides me to Jenny Wong’s Jonker 88 museum cafe, about halfway down the street.
There’s a queue at the front of the shop, which also sells mango and durian versions of the icy treat, plus a selection of savoury dishes. But we don’t need a table; we order a cendol and an equally moreish sago dessert, and wolf them down in the midday heat.
At the end of Jonker Street is Chung Wah, which serves the city’s best chicken rice balls, judging from the queue that extends from its entrance down the street and across a small bridge over the Malacca River.
Tan tells me this is a curiously Malaccan way of eating traditional Hainan chicken rice — the chicken-flavoured rice is shaped into ping- pong- sized balls and eaten with steamed or roasted chicken, dipped into the usual local condiments.
This nondescript shop with a flaking, cream-coloured exterior is doing a roaring trade and we could be here for hours, but a determined Tan goes to the front of the queue (garnering yet more good-
natured slaps on the back), where she charms the owner into letting us in for a chat with the cook.
Three diners quickly make room at their table, and we try a couple of chicken balls. It’s a novel idea, but I am a Hainan chicken rice tragic and prefer the traditional style. Our new friends, however, are tucking in with gusto.
Other stops on our whirlwind tour include the excellent but unassuming Xiang Ji Satay House, a short walk from Jonker Street, and the Portuguese Settlement southeast of the city where a vibrant strip of coastal restaurants specialises in seafood.
But Tan saves the best until last. At Restoran Nyonya Makko in the old town we meet owner Maureen Guan, whose mother, Bibik Nyong, now 91, launched the business in the 1960s, serving little more than nasi lemak (coconut- flavoured rice and condiments), homemade rendang chicken and sambal tumis (spicy Malaysian chilli paste) from a small stall. The business has been relocated and much expanded, but it still thrives on Bibik Nyong’s original recipes alongside other Nyonya specialties. This bustling restaurant, its large shared tables full when we visit, has attracted a new following courtesy of social media.
Though we left Tan’s cousin at the market earlier in the day, it’s not the last we’ll see of her. Koh has invited us for dinner and it’s at her Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine in Banda Hilir that I have some of the best food of my visit.
Like Tan, Koh has a keen sense of tradition and aims to carry on the cooking skills and recipes she has learned from her Baba (male) and Nyonya (female) forebears. From her kitchen at this modest dining spot, which features on its walls photos of Koh and Tan’s par- ents in ornate wedding regalia alongside framed awards, flows a series of Nyonya dishes.
There’s a fabulous fish maw soup (usually served on special occasions in the Peranakan community); prawns simmered in thick tamarind sauce; a wonderfully spicy omelette with cincaluk (fermented shrimp paste); and kuih pie tee, tiny top-hat-shaped pastries filled with a spicy turnip, prawn and beancurd mix.
There’s also ayam buah keluak, a deep and flavoursome chicken stew made with black nuts that, Tan tells me, can be poisonous if not cooked long enough.
Fortunately, Nyonya food involves endless frying and steeping, the elaborate pastes at the heart of each dish a fragrant melange of flavours, so there is no fear of upset tummies tonight.
As we eat, I notice a few sly glances from a table of eight nearby. Soon, all heads have turned our way. Koh is not backward in coming forward.
‘‘It’s my cousin Florence!’’ she calls out to the inquisitive bunch. In a flash Tan is at their table, each diner insisting on having their photo taken with the local celebrity in their midst.
As we drive back to my hotel, Tan, who is putting the finishing touches to her second book, tells me, ‘ ‘ My mission is to write Nyonya cookbooks so that when we are all long gone we can still have the food of our forefathers.’’
For those of us j ust getting acquainted with the cuisine of Malacca — the heartland of Nyonya food — that’s something to be thankful for. Michelle Rowe was a guest of Tourism Malaysia, Airasia and The Majestic Malacca.
Clockwise from main picture, the evening rush hour at stall-lined Jonker Street; a dumpling stall on the street; chicken rice balls at Chung Wah; Amy Koh at Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine